Consumer complaint website available

Posted Feb. 27, 2011, at 6:11 p.m.
Last modified March 04, 2011, at 3:57 p.m.

There’s a new online database from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) designed to list consumer complaints and manufacturers’ responses.

You may want to check it out . It could be gone before anyone gets to use it.

A little background is needed to explain. Until now, CPSC has investigated complaints in private. If it found problems, the agency negotiated a voluntary recall with the manufacturer. The process usually took months, sometimes years, during which consumers remained at risk and often unaware anything might be wrong.

Ongoing problems — many of them involving lead paint — prompted Congress to pass the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act in 2008. Part of that law involved setting up a database where consumers can register complaints and manufacturers can respond.

The site appeared recently in “soft launch.” Complaints can be sent and manufacturer comments received, but none of that information is being published on the website. That’s supposed to start happening on March 11 during Consumer Protection Week. CPSC will have five days to review a complaint and send it to the manufacturer; the company’s response would be due within 10 days.

Both the complaint and response would then be posted on the website. Consumers could see the comments and search for information on other products. That won’t happen — at least not right away — if some industry groups have their way.

The National Association of Manufacturers has been leading the charge to delay implementation. NAM says its members are concerned that unfounded accusations might be publicized. It also contends that 10 days isn’t enough time to respond, especially when a complaint might involve tracking down a problem.

NAM isn’t alone in its opposition. The Consumer Specialty Products Association is the trade group primarily for makers of cleaning products. It pushed for a delay in implementing the website. So did the Handmade Toy Alliance, claiming charges for third-party product testing will drive many small toymakers out of business. Industry groups also protested allowing attorneys, consumer advocacy groups, health care providers and public safety officials to submit complaints.

At a recent congressional hearing, an official with the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers called CPSC’s site a government-sponsored “blog.” The critics won in the U.S. House. Representative Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., attached an amendment to the government funding bill that pulls money for the website for the rest of this fiscal year.

Northeast CONTACT likes the website concept for two main reasons: It puts “sunshine” (openness) in the complaint process, and it encourages a dialog between consumers and industry. The old process has allowed far too much time to elapse between the discovery and remedy of safety problems.

We believe people are best served when they’re given information that helps them make good decisions. Summarizing concerns, rather than publishing complaints verbatim, may reduce needless harm to a company’s reputation. Lengthening the 10-day response time may address some industry concerns; the broader question of how much government regulation is needed is a thornier issue.

NAM claims defective products cause a “small fraction” of total illnesses or injuries, with misuse posing much greater problems. The association urges broader consumer education “to correct those behavioral patterns that are factors in product-related injuries.”

CPSC’s blog has safety and recall information and helpful links.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or email at contacexdir@live.com.

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